The Trial of N.L. Dukes

An unlikely murder case featuring such respected, prominent members of a quiet community quickly gained national attention. This prompted many high-profiled characters to play a role in the prosecution and the defense. Nicholas Dukes hoped to be represented by William Playford, a politician and a prominent criminal attorney, and asked him to be a part of his defense team. Playford refused his request, and in a dramatic turnabout, joined the district attorney as part of the prosecution. Dukes instead hired Charles Boyle, who had been elected as district attorney in 1862 and later went on to be a congressman.

On March 10, 1883, the trial for the murder of Captain Adam Nutt opened. When asked to state his plea, Dukes’ replied, “Not guilty,” and jury selection began. All twelve men selected to the jury were skilled laborers, did not live in Uniontown and were all Democrats, just like Dukes. The political leanings of the jury and their possible bias would later be a point of furious debate.

Fayette County Courthouse

Breckenridge was the first person called to the stand, where he recollected that someone cried out the word “murder,” although he could not distinguish whose voice it was. Dressed in all black, Mrs. Nutt testified for her husband that he was always armed because it was a habit for him to carry around a gun. The real question on everyone’s minds, however, was the nature of the letters exchanged between Captain Nutt and Dukes.

The following day, Playford tried to submit the two letters into evidence. After resistance from Boyle, Judge Wilson ruled the letters were relevant to the case and would be read in court—but not before all of the women in the audience were asked to leave. It was thought to be inappropriate for women to hear such lewd and malicious content.

The first letter told Captain Nutt of Lizzie’s indecent behavior, while the second letter accused Captain Nutt of already having known about his daughter’s conduct. The correspondences quickly turned the people against Dukes. Unfortunately for the prosecution, their witnesses contradicted each other and sometimes themselves.

As for Dukes’ defense, his lawyers argued that he did not instigate the fight and that Captain Nutt trespassed into Dukes’ room. They insisted that the young man had the right to defend himself in the safety of his home. Mrs. Jennings corroborated Duke’s testimony that he killed Captain Nutt out of self-defense. The defense also argued that Captain Nutt usually did not arm himself with a weapon as powerful as he did on that Christmas Eve, illustrating his intent to kill Dukes.

On March 14, 1883, closing arguments were made and the verdict of the court case was announced. In the case of the Commonwealth vs. Nicholas Dukes the defendant was found not guilty. Shock and awe swept the nation, which led to rage and outcries of injustice.